Here’s a scene: a solemn Tuesday evening in the chamber of the House of Representatives, a cold and bitter February in the capital city, and everyone who is anyone in Washington politics is there: the Chief Justice next to the Joint Chiefs, freshman congresswoman from Mesa, Arizona, seated beside the senior senator from Missoula, Montana, as an old hand of the Cabinet from Biscayne Bay walks past the puckish House Clerk from Bayonne, NJ. Conservatives on the floor are abuzz with anticipation, glad-handing and back-slapping one another for a job well done. Scattered stand isolated liberals stoically cross-armed with lips still bit from simmering resentment. The Sergeant at Arms suddenly announces, his voice booming, “Mister Speaker, the President of the United States!” A thunderous whoop resounds like a crashing wave, and there strides Mitt Romney – President Romney, the 45th President of the United States – on his way to deliver what will be his first State of the Union address. Somewhere else, unseen from public eye, perhaps keeping the designated survivor company, Republican operatives light a cigar and toast their tumblers of Scotch for having successfully stolen another election.
Such a scenario would be happening tonight if the Republican plan called “Red Map” (technically “the REDistricting MAjority Project,” or REDMAP) had been in effect for the 2012 election. President Obama, having handsomely won the majority vote, would have nonetheless lost the electoral vote due to a deliberately divisive revisionism by conservatives in an effort to demonstrate that parts of the country are greater than the whole. Which we know thanks to the post-Beatles offshoots of The Wings or Plastic Ono Band simply is preposterous – the whole is always better than the individual parts. Maybe I’m amazed, but power to the people – so let it be.
If at first you don’t succeed, cheat. This seems to be the lesson that some of the surprisingly mainstream leaders on the Republican national level have learned in the last three election cycles – 2008, 2010, and 2012. In 2008 they lost an up-for-grabs White House to a snappy upstart who also happened to be the first African-American to win the Oval Office in the history of the once slave-state nation. They also lost the House, while the Democrats retained their majority in the Senate (after the 2006 election). Smarting before the first flub on the inauguration, they were not to let the egg on their elephantine face run too long. Scarcely 17 months later, the 2010 midterm election saw an ugly flood of corporate money that in turn puppeteered yahoo tea party groups that ran amok on the state and federal levels all over the land. It wasn’t just a conservative inability to inure themselves to the reality of an Obama administration; strategists and operatives had known all along what too many of us (myself included) failed to realize before that fateful November and had been seizing the moment the long while: that thanks to the census, whichever party won would get the just deserts to redraw (or gerrymander) the districts, thus essentially ensuring hermetic majorities for the next ten years. Republicans swept state legislatures and governor’s mansions, thereby embarking upon a radical agenda of economic austerity and culture wars payback, while taking back the House in Washington and thus ensuring a political gridlock more ensnared with stagnant Nays than a constipated donkey.
Two years later there are at least two revealing aftermaths of their crystal meth politics:
(1) as will be demonstrated below, they gloat amongst themselves and glow in a wan limelight for having rigged the process;
(2) rather than having gleaned any useful tips about losing the presidential election twice in a row (despite the worst economy in recent memory) thanks in large part to Latinos, women, the elderly, students, and, well, just about anyone who is not already and does not plan on becoming a cranky, crusty old white man clutching his gun like a surly badger in its sunless den, what they have taken away is — since they can’t win the old-fashioned honest way, they’ll do it by hook and crook.
Think I’m paranoid or hyperbolic? I did too – and kept singing the Garbage song in my head. At first. But then I actually looked into it, and not only is it as bad as I had thought, it’s somehow worse, given the incredible audacity and casual shamelessness about it.
Here’s how it would work: rather than our current winner-take-all system — which, for all its faults for precluding third parties, is a simple reflection of majority rule: whoever receives the most votes wins the full purse of the state (with some exceptions) — instead, under the Red Map proposal, a state’s electors would be apportioned to the candidate who won individual congressional districts while two would be rewarded to the statewide winner. What’s wrong with that? One district, say representing a major metropolitan area, is the co-equal of another district, two to three times in size but with a fraction of the population. We are a nation determined by the principle of one person, one vote, with no one person’s vote counting more than another. A farmer sitting on 200 acres has no more electoral clout, or count, than a city block of 200 families. But even if this were not so, the individual districts are drawn up by the least objective people imaginable: the latest majority party that has a very vested interest in remaining in power — cue the lunatics running the cuckoo clock. Or think of it this way: agog with power and charmless self-involvement, the majority party draws district lines looking like a cross between a Rorschach inkblot closely resembling bovine manure and the linear nature of an old friend drunk-dialing you at midnight.
You think I am exaggerating things. Well, I am, in a sense. For when I say “a state’s electors,” I don’t mean just any state, and I definitely don’t mean all states; no, only the most precariously purple states: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin (or “Flomisho-PennVirWis”). Not Rhode Island and not Oklahoma (why bother?), but not either North Carolina or Indiana (too close for the GOP to lose). Since I live in and often scribe about Wisconsin, let’s take its case in point. There are eight congressional districts here and ten total electoral college votes. As Red Map would have it, President(s) Obama and Romney would have each received five electoral votes, as Republicans won five of the eight drunk-dialed congressional districts, while Obama won the popular vote by a sizable 7 percent. (For what it’s worth, the county-line vote was nearly split down the middle: 37 voted for Romney, 35 for Obama. Needless to say, these simply are numbers of counties, not amount of votes cast within each.)
The Mitten state’s hypothetical is even more alarming: of their sixteen electoral votes, nine would have been allocated to Romney, as he faired better than Obama in nine of the state’s fourteen congressional districts, thus leaving Obama only seven — even though the president carried the state by nearly 10 percent. That’s how an election gets rigged, ladies and gentlemen, right before our eyes.
But don’t just take my word for it. In its 2012 summary report the Republican State Leadership Committee, in a moment of startling candor, admitted this:
“[N]umbers show voters pulled the lever for Republicans only 49 percent of the time in congressional races, suggesting that 2012 could have been a repeat of 2008, when voters gave control of the White House and both chambers of Congress to Democrats. But, as we see today, that was not the case. Instead, Republicans enjoy a 33-seat margin in the U.S. House…in the 113th Congress, having endured Democratic successes atop the ticket and over one million more votes cast for Democratic House candidates than Republicans.”
Did you catch that? Thanks to Gerrymander 2010, Republicans enjoy an unrepresentative control in the House even though Democrats received nearly 1.5 million more votes.
It is no accident either that Wisconsin is on the map, so to speak: newly re-elected Chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), a man by the almost fanciful and wholly unpronounceable name, Reince Priebus, who wholly endorses the Red Map plan, lives in southeastern Wisconsin. Why, here he is now:
Prince Reibus (it’s just easier this way — and seemingly more suited) defends his support of the plan in part by claiming that it would bring the presidential debate “to a more local level.” But this is precisely what is perverted about the idea: a presidential office is not a local level issue; it is a national one. It would be pandering pantomime for a candidate running for leader of the free world to give a shit about a specific congressional district the likes of a new highway or museum. Congressional districts are parceled out as such (theoretically at least) because they are specific and contained, relevant to its own boundaries. On the local level, what’s good for Viroqua may not be for Verona, ditto Rhinelander and Rothschild. What makes sense for Milwaukee does not necessarily for Madison any more than Waukesha and Waushara, Waushara and Washburn.
Yet what is more existentially insidious about Operation Red Map is not just the cheapskate cheating; it’s the further fissuring of our collective society. Instead of one Wisconsin, there would be two, each side having even less respect for the other than may currently exist. There would be Red Wisconsin and Blue Wisconsin. To say nothing of alienating independent, unaffiliated voters with no home to go to, we would erode the common good, our common identity. We’re all of us already way too guilty of listening only to the radio stations that agree with how we feel, reading only the newspapers and blogs or watching the TV news that tell us what we want to hear. Divvying up the electoral college votes would result in us further digging our heels in, not healing what divides us already.
Plus it goes against the grain of e pluribus unum, arguably our core doctrine – “out of many, one.” We are a united states, like it or lump it. Do I get pissy because states like Texas and South Carolina send a bunch of hotheads with whom I have not one common value in common, who seem to come from a culture as mysterious and mostly repellant to me as Mars itself, to Congress whose votes, because they are cast on a national level, happen to violate my own principles and beliefs? You bet your boots. Just as it no doubt bothers them that my feelings for gay and women’s rights has them concluding that the institution of marriage is going to hell in a wedding registry-from-Ikea handbasket while millions of unborn babies are being murdered. But they and I all must deal with this, because it’s what being an American requires. Did I want to run away to Canada after Bush’s re-election in 2004? Of course I did — but that probably has more to do with my affinity for winter, maple syrup, shy underdogs, hockey, and Canadian bacon than any pucker-lipped sneer of national embarrassment or my predilection for defection.
Look, it is not lost on me that Wisconsin conservatives have seen their presidential votes go to naught since 1984 and they’re tired of feeling superseded by Madison and Milwaukee liberals. I get that — and I would surely empathize if, say, I lived in Utah and never saw my own ballot materialize for a candidate I voted for. But, well, that’s just how it is in Democracyville, no two ways about it. One person, one vote, period. Otherwise, it’s like that Garbage song:
Steal me, deal me, anyway you heal me
Maim me, tame me, you can never change me
Love me, like me, come ahead and fight me
Please me, tease me, go ahead and leave me
Postscript: There is an interesting irony that this unabashed plan is released around the same time as the film Lincoln. Now I know that today’s GOP hardly cares a curse about President Lincoln, despite being the country’s first Republican president – too much “state’s rights” stuff gets in the way to let that happen – but its chairman would do well to recall one salient aspect of the sixteenth president: Mr Lincoln kept the nation intact at all costs. The Kenosha kid might consider a day trip up to Ripon, WI, birthplace of the Republican Party, to better remember its roots.